End of a dining era: Kowloon Cafe in West Valley City closing after 60 years of serving Chinese and American food

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Vicki McMullin, 61, who was ten years old when she started dining at the popular Kowloon Cafe in West Valley City, gives owner Raymond Wang a pat on the back as she recalls fond memories at the establishment. After 60 years in business the restaurant is closing.

West Valley City • When Raymond Wang announced last month that he was closing the Kowloon Cafe on May 11, the restaurant owner expected a few longtime customers to stop by and enjoy one last plate of pork chow mein or chicken fried steak.

The response from that initial announcement, though, overwhelmed this quintessential Chinese American restaurant at 2055 W. 3500 South.

Hundreds of diners, feeling nostalgic about the West Valley City cafe — in business for 60 years — have visited for their last Kowloon meal. They filled the lobby, spilled outside the double doors and onto the sidewalk, where two statues of Chinese foo dogs stand guard.

One day, the kitchen ran out of food before 8 p.m., and the restaurant had to shut down for a day just to refill the pantry and refrigerators, Wang said.

The opening time has been pushed back to noon — instead of the usual 11 a.m. — so staffers can have more time to prep food. Even though the kitchen is buying more food, it still sells out of popular dishes.

“Everyone just keeps pouring in,” said an amazed, but grateful Wang, who will lock the doors for good at the end of dinner service Saturday.

“We thought maybe it would get a little busier,” added his daughter and partner, Connie Wang. “But we didn’t expect quite the outpouring from the community. We weren’t ready for that.”

DeAnn McMaster is one of those longtime customers who remembers coming with her family as a child.

“My parents used to bring us on Sundays,” she said. “I’ll miss the egg rolls, and when I get sick, I won’t be able to come in for a cup of egg drop soup.”

Several patrons have asked Raymond Wang to reconsider, but the 73-year-old says he wants to retire and enjoy his grandchildren before it’s too late. He has sold the property to a larger restaurant group, but says if someone wants to buy the Kowlooon Cafe name and recipes, he’s willing to negotiate.

Connie Wang is opening a new restaurant, called Tokyo Teriyaki, in Midvale and Salt Lake City’s Sugar House area later this summer.

The closing of the Kowloon Cafe marks the end of a dining era. it is one of the last remaining Chinese American restaurants in the state, a throwback to an era when ethnic cuisine didn’t have to be totally “authentic” to be appreciated and the kitschy decor — think golden dragons and red paper lanterns — felt exotic.

Many in the Chinese community say it’s ironic that the Kowloon is shutting down in the same week that Utahns of Chinese descent will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Golden Spike, an effort to make up for the erasure of Chinese contributions to the transcontinental railroad. Historians estimate that least 11,000 Chinese immigrants built much of the Central Pacific line from Sacramento, Calif., to northern Utah’s Promontory Summit, where the tracks met with the Union Pacific line from Omaha, Neb.

The original Kowloon Cafe — with the neon dragon sign — was located on Redwood Road, a few blocks away from the current spot, and was founded in 1959 by Chow Tip “Charlie” Wong. He operated it for 15 years before retiring and selling to one of his employees, Patton Kwan, in 1974.

While the restaurant was popular among area residents at the time, it attracted diners from Salt Lake City, in part, through a happy accident, said Colleen Kwan, Patton’s daughter.

“My dad would send out the mailers, which were distributed based on ZIP codes," she remembered. One time, there was a miscommunication and the mailer — with a 10% discount for takeout — was sent to Salt Lake City’s 84102 ZIP code, instead of the intended 84120.

“At first, my dad was mad that he had paid money, and they went to the wrong place,” Kwan said, “but we got so many east-side customers that stayed loyal to us for years, he changed his mind and thought it wasn’t so bad.”

Patton Kwan retired and sold the restaurant to Raymond Wang in 1991.

The menu at the Kowloon Cafe has remained mostly the same for six decades; one section features Chinese favorites such as sweet-and-sour chicken, fried rice and chop suey, while the other side has American classics. Think fish and chips, hamburgers and chicken fried steak.

For 50 years, Chak Yu has been preparing the restaurant’s signature egg foo young — which many believe is the best in the state and has developed a cult following. At 75, he plans to cut back and maybe work part time at Connie Wang’s teriyaki restaurant.

The variety — along with generous portions and affordable prices — is among the many reasons the restaurant became a favorite spot for families to eat dinner or celebrate personal milestones.

Lynn and Belinda Christensen of Layton have dined at the restaurant since the 1960s. He always orders the breaded veal cutlet — “there aren’t many places that still serve it’ — while she gets the chicken chow mein with fried jumbo shrimp

Lynn Christensen said he planned to return one more time — with his 90-year-old father — before Saturday. “It’s one more chapter of our lives that’s gone."